LandWork: Israel, Nakba, Memory

Rebecca Stein

The dispossession of the Palestinians in 1948 and its aftermath, including the razing of Palestinian villages, depended on pedagogical Israeli state efforts to expunge Palestinian history from dominant national imaginations (processes that numerous scholars have charted). These efforts required, in part, the reformulation of the national landscape—that is, a shift in hegemonic Israeli conceptions of national land, landscape, and territory alike. And this pedagogical project has proven remarkably successful in the decades since 1948, having transformed the abundant physical traces of Palestinian living in and on the land into a national story of ruins and ruination, one with seemingly no relationship to either Palestinian histories or possible Israeli futures. These narrative snapshots, drawn from ethnographic fieldwork, highlight moments in which such counterhegemonic landscapes and historical traces came into rare and renegade visibility.

Territory and Memory

While conducting research about the history of northern Israel, an Israeli friend of mine stumbled across the story of a mosque whose remains were situated on the grounds of her father's childhood kibbutz, a mosque that had served local Palestinian communities in the region during the pre-1948 period. She learned that the mosque's structure had remained relatively intact long after its Palestinian client population had fled or been expelled during the course of the 1948-1949 war, while its lands had been folded into the territory of the nascent Israeli state and subsequently redistributed for the expansion of Israel's rural Jewish communities. She called her father at his Tel Aviv home to confirm the discovery. Did he remember the mosque, she asked. No, he responded, he did not. She pressed him a bit. I have its coordinates, she insisted, and its remains are located on kibbutz land. But he was certain, reminding her that he knew every inch of kibbutz territory, having spent his childhood hiking its environs in accordance with prevailing Zionist pedagogy. His denial was categorical and there the conversation ended.

A few days later, he called her back with a set of belated memories. It seemed that in discussion with his sisters who had also grown up on this kibbutz, a forgotten landscape had slowly come into view. Yes, the mosque was there, he confirmed. Indeed, he recalled watching Palestinians harvesting fruit from its adjacent fields when he was a young boy, a memory he presumed to be a 1949 postwar scene from the moment when Palestinian families recently exiled from Israel returned to harvest their crops and inspect their property. This memory process disturbed him. How could such an intimate knowledge of one's homeland simply vanish only to come suddenly and vividly back into view?

Landscapes and Ghosts

In the spring of 2007, I joined Zochrot (meaning "remembering" in Hebrew) on one of their frequent walking tours of formerly Palestinian places conquered during the course of the 1948 War. Founded by a group of radical Israelis in 2002, the group has aimed to educate their Jewish conationals about the history of the Palestinian dispossession. Their means and projects are varied: guided tours through formerly Palestinian places (both village remains and urban spaces); ceremonies commemorating wartime atrocities; educational lectures and films on the history of the dispossession; displays of contemporary Israeli political art that foregrounds the theme of Palestinian exile and Israeli state violence; theatrical protests in Israeli urban spaces that dramatize forgotten Palestinian histories; erecting signage in Israeli places (e.g. "this land belongs to the uprooted people of Miske") to rectify the erasure of Palestinians from the Israeli landscape. While Zochrot's core constituency is relatively small, their visibility in the Israeli mainstream media has been relatively high in the last decade, often in the form of political attacks. They can be read as a barometer of the shifting political sensibilities of the Israeli left—a left which once traced the emergence of Israeli militarism to the onset of the 1967 occupation and which, by and large, viewed critical re-evaluation of 1948 as tantamount to blasphemy in its deauthorization of the Israeli national project.

This tour, which catered to a group of young Jewish Israeli educators, focused on the ruins of Lifta, located on the outskirts of West Jerusalem. These ruins are highly unusual, as Lifta was one of a mere handful of Palestinian villages whose primary structures were neither wholly razed by the Israeli army during or after the war, nor renovated and repopulated by Jewish Israelis. In the sites of most former villages uprooted in 1948, Palestinian history is only visibly in evidence after diligent investigative work— like the gathering of shards and unearthing of overgrown remains. But Lifta's physical landscape is quite different. When walking through its grounds, even the most passive viewer is presented with a set of remarkably intact stone houses and walkways, by a central well surrounded by thriving almond, fig, and cherry trees that testify to the place's rich agricultural history. Over the course of the last two decades, Lifta's seemingly abandoned structures and scenic spaces have become a playground for Israel's socially marginal, primarily Hasidic squatters and Israeli drug dealers, and is now a favored destination among springtime hikers. Its stone exteriors are now overwritten with Hebrew graffiti, and its interiors strewn with the remains that squatters or picnickers have left behind.

My guide through Lifta, Zochrot's founder, illustrated the village's history with the help of a map that delineated both current Israeli towns and sites of former Palestinian dwelling. He pointed to the adjacent Palestinian villages of Beit Mazmi, Dayr Yassin, Ein Karem, Saffa—a small portion of those in the Jerusalem area that were thriving prior to 1948. Some of these villages are no longer standing, their material structures no longer intact. Others, like Ein Karem, were renovated and reinhabited by Jewish Israelis, for whom Arab architecture signifies largely an aesthetic rather than historical marker. Participants on the tour, a group of self-described leftists, were surprised by the map's coordinates, disarmed by the proximity of these formerly Palestinian places, places whose prior histories, although often visible in the landscape, have been all but removed from public memory. "I knew there were Palestinian villages in the area," one young man noted. "But so many?''

As our walking tour descended into the heart of the village, I elicited the testimonial of a young rabbi who joined this tour as part of his graduate education. He described a rural Israeli childhood spent playing in orchards, among decaying stone walls, and in the shelter of numerous ruins. "All of these were signs," he told me, "of the people that used to live here, signs we saw with our own eyes. But no one ever told us who lived there, nor did we inquire." Only at a much later age, when he was nearly 30, did the Palestinian provenance of these ruins and neglected fruit trees become clear. "It shocked me," he confessed. "You've lived in this area your whole life, and with all these things, but nobody told us, nor did we ask. You live among these signs, but their past is erased."

For one familiar with Israel, this story is not unusual. Indeed, during my years in residence there, I heard many variants— that is, stories about the discovery that the seemingly Israeli landscapes of one's childhood had a vibrant Palestinian past. Most of these stories were enunciated with surprise, a surprise particularly acute within a nation-state that prides itself on thorough, tactile knowledge of the homeland. How, many wondered, could their knowledge of the national landscape be so dramatically wrong? And why, many mulled, was their re-education so belated? There is often an audible urgency to such questions, a sense that the questioner is recalibrating not merely a national geography but also a personal one; that is, that this rethinking of the national landscape also necessitates a rethinking of Israeli identity itself.

After the tour concluded, our guide offered s a similar testimonial, one that drew on the same narrative form, the same structure of memory. He grew up on a kibbutz, close to the remains of a decaying fortress. We all thought it was a crusader fortress, he said. Only five years ago, long after army service, did he resuscitate its Palestinian history. "Of course," he said, "there were people on the kibbutz who knew, people from an older generation. But this history just wasn't a part of the discourse."

"But this history is present," he says, "like a ghost."